More lessons learned from IMS in the EOC

As part of an extra-credit assignment this semester, I was put in charge of designing and controlling an IMS-based exercise for my classmates.

Up until this point in our classes, and even throughout most of Ontario, our exercises and plans have been based on the old organizational model of the Emergency Operations Centre; with members of the Control Group operating under their positions (Mayor, Fire Chief, etc).

With the Incident Management System (or Incident Command system) becoming so widespread (and Ontario being way behind the US, Australia, and British Columbia in that respect) our teacher wanted us to experience an IMS-based exercise. I volunteered to design it.

It was a huge headache, but also a major learning experience for me.

For one thing, there aren’t a lot of guidelines for exercising IMS within the EOC. Even Emergency Management Ontario hasn’t fully worked out how to move from positions to functions. I tried looking at Australia and the US for guides, but I didn’t find much. I think my major problem was not that I was learning IMS in the EOC, but that I was trying to understand a new model after spending 7 months learning an entirely different model. Had we started the year learning IMS (as my teacher has told us next year’s class will) it might have made more sense applying it to the EOC.

One resource that has helped me has been these videos from the City of Edmonton Emergency Preparedness department. Having a visual to go along with all of the IMS org charts really made a difference in how I understood it.

I still had the challenge of designing the exercise, however. We were using a script from an exercise we’d done a few weeks previous, using the old model. This may have been a mistake, but time limited and a jam packed semester meant we couldn’t afford to spend the time writing a new script.

The day of the exercise, our class met in our mock EOC. We divided the class, with 2/3rd taking on functions in the EOC, and the remaining 1/3 operating as Incident Command and Operations at four “sites”.

We read the narrative (a flood scenario) to both groups, and then gave site-specific information to each “site” group. Each site and the EOC were responsible for completing an Incident Action Plan, based on the information they had. After an hour, we gave each group updated information (as though a full 24 hours had passed since the initial narrative) and the required forms were filled out.

Some things I concluded from this exercise included:

  1. Despite it’s claims, IMS is very form based, at least in the EOC.
  2. We should have started the site groups on their IAP earlier, so that the EOC could base their on input from the decisions being made at site. It was easy to forget that IMS needs to work from the ground, up.
  3. Even though phones are a hassle to set up (last time we spent 20 minutes taping down cords), they are more reliable than the radios were were using.
  4. We needed to give the sites more detail for them to base their IAPs on. Even a few pictures would have made a huge difference in making the exercise more realistic.

Even though it was aggravating, I also learned a lot about myself and my own strengths and weaknesses while planning this exercise. I realized that I very much like to look at every detail and plan for every possibility. I also learned that most of the time, this isn’t realistic or efficient. Though I was frustrated at the lack of control I felt going into the exercise, I realized that we really did need to just go for it, and see what worked and what didn’t. Obviously, I wouldn’t take that approach if I was working with a client, but we practiced the exercise within the classroom for a reason. I feel as though I now have a stronger ability to see the “big picture”.

I also really like IMS, and I have a much better understanding of it now. I’m really looking forward to seeing the direction Ontario takes it in the next couple of years.


Links, pranks, and beautiful weather

It’s amazing how a change in the weather can cause such a shift in mood. I don’t think anyone demonstrates this better than college students.

It’s been absolutely beautiful here for the last week, and everyone has been outside, having barbeques, playing beach volleyball, and…getting up to no good. Relatively speaking. There has been an upswing in pranking lately, which certainly wasn’t helped by St. Patrick’s day. Which, all things considered, was actually pretty tame. Especially in comparison to this Ontario college. (My brother actually goes to Fanshawe, but he was nowhere near the riot, thank goodness).

We (staff) aren’t immune to the good weather either. Last week my fellow RA and I pranked our bosses office, by turning everything moveable upside-down. It’s the best prank because its easy to do and is minimally inconvenient. I went in there yesterday, and his coffee cup, binders, and some posters were still upside down.

This post on the importance of emergency evacuation drill on the fictional campaign site of Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope, made me laugh out loud:  “The official Pawnee City Mandate for disaster evacuations reads, simply, “Run, dummies.””

I’m currently writing a public education program on terrorism, and I came across this article about terrorism not being the number 1 issue. It brings up the question: should emergency management efforts focus on the most prevalent hazards (in Canada: flooding and forest fires) or what the public thinks are the most prevalent hazards?

Decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases.” I have at least 5 different groups for various projects this year, and while I think group work can be beneficial (if incredibly aggravating) at times, I also love this article from one of my favourite columns, Bullish: Team Work is Overrated (How To Be A Lone Unicorn).

I took a course on Politics in Northern Ireland while I was studying in the UK, and Belfast was one of my favourite places to visit while travelling. While researching the 1998 Omagh bombing for a disaster recovery project, I found this article on how a trauma centre established after the bomb have been able help other victims of tragic events around the globe.

On modelling myself after Tami Taylor

Fact: I was a late hire for the ResLife team, so my interview was in May of last year, rather than February. It was right around the time that I started watching the last two seasons of Friday Night Lights.

I decided early on in the hiring process that if I were to be hired, I wanted to be the kind of mentor that Tami Taylor was to everyone in Dillon. Tami is everything I want to be when I grow up: strong, devoted to her family, full of life, always gracious and willing to help, and never, ever a pushover. It didn’t matter what situation she was dealing with, whether it was counselling a pregnant teenager or telling Tim Riggins what’s what, she always seemed to do or say the right thing. She perfected the art of slipping what she really wanted to say casually into the conversation — under a thick layer of sweet smiles and a few well-placed “y’all’s”. Above all, she was unfailingly polite and rarely lost her temper.

Some of my favourite scenes are the ones in which Tami is dealing with someone who is trying to walk all over her. This happens a lot when I’m on rounds. Residents will get caught with beer bottles or playing drinking games, and then try to intimidate RLS into leaving. (This happens almost exclusively when alcohol is involved). I’m in this situation, I try to channel my inner Tami.  When I’m in a tough spot, I remind myself to keep smiling and focus on my end goal, whether it’s getting a name, a bottle, or a ping-pong ball. It can be difficult not to take things personally when residents are swearing or being rude, but keeping up that smile works wonders at getting them to give up, or, even better, apologize.

I definitely don’t always succeed in emulating Ms. Taylor. She has a capability for empathy and diplomacy that I’m still trying to develop. But there are some things I know we have in common. I’m able to admit when I’m wrong, and I’m fiercely protective of my residents.

And I can’t wait for spring to start wearing my cowboy boots with everything!

OVERT Orientation

Last Tuesday, I drove myself and two of my colleagues/classmates to Bowmanville for an  OVERT (Ontario Volunteer Emergency Response Team) orientation session. Volunteering for OVERT has been something I’ve been interested in for a while, but it wasn’t realistic until this year.

The orientation certainly convinced me it was something I wanted to do. OVERT acts as a 2nd tier of emergency response, mostly assisting in Search and Rescue operations in Ontario. Its members are able to attend tons of free training and even go abroad with the organization, as well as participate in various community events. You can join different teams, from Marine and Search and Rescue, and even Canine (although it’s apparently really hard to get on).

One of the reasons that I want to join OVERT so badly is that it would allow me to participate in the exciting, first-response aspect of emergency management, while having a higher-level type EM position as a day job. I didn’t realize until becoming an RA how much I love first-response, and now that I have, I want it to be part of my life. I don’t however, want it to be part of my everyday life, as a police officer or firefighter. Being able to respond to emergencies on a part-time, or volunteer basis, would be perfect for me.

Unfortunately, in order to join OVERT you need to be available for all training dates, and the first weekend falls on the same day as move-out, which I’m under contract to attend. I still may talk to my boss and see what he says, because this is something I really want to do.

In the meantime, I’m using my renewed enthusiasm to get pumped up for the exercises we have coming up in the next few weeks. Even though I wasn’t on the design team for these ones, I still feel just as invested, and can’t wait to see how they turn out!

Focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses

Right before reading week, my boss handed all of us copies of the book Strengths Finder 2.0, by Tom Rath, and gave us an assignment. We all had to log on to the Strengths Finder website and do an assessment, and then come back to residence with our top five strengths written out. We all groaned and complained, because the last thing we wanted to do on our break was MORE homework. Our boss told us very politely to shut up, and that personal development activities were part of our contract. So one day while sitting by the pool in Florida, I took out the book, logged onto the site, and did the assessment.

I’m so glad I did. The strengths finder theory is that people spend the majority of their time trying to improve upon their weaknesses, or following goals that don’t play to their natural strengths. The goal of the assessment is to find the strengths that come to you naturally, and give you the tools to develop them. The assessment told me that my top 5 strengths were:

1) Input (collecting knowledge or information)
2)  Restorative (solving problems)
3) WOO (Winning others over)
4) Communication (self-explanatory)
5) Includer (helping others feel included)

At first, I looked at the results skeptically. The test seemed a little too simple to be able to know what my strengths were. Not only that, but some of the questions required knowledge of myself I’m not sure I possessed. But the more I read about the different strengths, the more I agreed.

Input, in particular, really seems to fuel a lot of what I do. I love collecting bits of information, whether its random facts, new ideas, or even jokes. I don’t always know what I’m going to do with the information, but simply collecting it makes me happy. When I’m able to make connections between the knowledge, or able to turn it into something useful, like a story or an essay, that’s when I really feel engaged. This desire fuels the restorative strength, because I like to help other people solve problems using my knowledge or ideas. It fuels the WOO and Includer strengths, because that knowledge helps me make connections with other people. The communication strength is both assisted by and assists all of the other strengths–I love talking, and writing, and when I can talk or right about the information I’m interested in, I am happy as a clam.

Tonight we did a seminar based on the findings from the book. We found out who had similar strengths, and who had complimentary strengths. For example, my SRA had Disciple as her #1 strength, which works well with my Input because I can get sidetracked when I’m chasing information and lose focus. We also talked about how to explain and give examples of these strengths in a job interview.

We realized that we all had very similar strengths, and it was pointed out that RAs all would–after all, you need particular skills and interests in order to even want the job, let alone to do the job well. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the skills that came up were the ones that really involved interacting with people.

I loved learning more about myself and figuring out how to use those strengths to my advantage. So often I focus on my weakness and areas to improve, rather than on developing the skills I already have. I’m definitely going to be referring to this book again, both for career purposes and for my own personal development purposes.

On another note: I also won employee of the month tonight. It was a great way to start a night that was all about focusing on strengths 🙂

Organization, procrastination, and the perpetual importance of preparedness

It’s a little bit funny just how much I’ve missed my day planner this week. I never think of myself as an organized person–I’m constantly forgetting my keys, my phone, my assignments, to the point that it’s become a running joke with my residents that I can’t leave the suite without running back at least once. But that’s probably why I rely on my day planner so much. I tend to do organization in spurts. I will wait until my room gets really messy and then clean it all in one big sweep. I find that once I get going, it’s hard for me to stop. It’s the same with scheduling. I write down everything at the beginning of the semester, or the week, and then don’t touch it again. I wish I could be one of those people who were ALWAYS meticulously organized–but alas. My talent lies in my extremes, I guess.

There are several things I use to organize myself. This year especially, with all of our exercises and clients, I’ve really relied, like I said, on my dayplanner. I have this pretty patent Coach agenda that I bought at an outlet in Pennsylvania for the low, low price of I couldn’t remember if you paid me. I use it not just for scheduling, but it also has all my numbers and addresses, birthdays, and other information I can’t forget. I also use it for collecting business cards, which I did a lot this week.

I love the gold lined pages - they make me feel fancy and grown up - but I hate that it's impossible to get refills for the notepad at the back.

Because I’m extra paranoid (see above: forgetful) I also put everything into my iCal, which automatically syncs with my iPhone and iPad. My agenda is pretty heavy, so I don’t usually carry it around with me. But having everything phone means I usually have a pretty good idea of my schedule. My phone also reminds me of most appointments the day of, which is both helpful and annoying.

I use to-do lists sporadically. I tend to update the one on my phone in bed–that way I can tell my brain to shut up and stop worrying before I got to sleep. I also make them on paper, so that when I cross stuff off I can have that visual confirmation that I am, in fact, being productive. I like lists a lot, but I also find they can sometimes get in the way of productivity. Lists are very linear and my brain and life are not. So, for example, if I put “clean car”, “finish MSEL”, and “do bulletin board” next to each other, I will tend to prioritize based on which is most important (MSEL). But sometimes, my best tool can be my power of procrastination. If I always focused on the most important item, I would literally never get anything done. Sometimes I need to clean my car first, which will make me feel so good I’ll be able to sit down and concentrate on my MSEL. Or maybe while I do my bulletin board, I’ll come up with a good idea for an input. So, in conclusion, while lists are great, sometimes it’s better for me to keep my unofficial to do list in my head.

Today I managed to get LOADS of stuff done–unfortunately, none of it was the one thing I should be doing, which is finishing my essay on how liability can impact the recovery process. I’ve been so much better at being organized and proactive this year, however, which is great. Then again, sometimes I look like this:

This is not too different from how I've been this weekend

One method I really miss is Microsoft OneNote. I switched over to Mac about 4 years ago and haven’t looked back, but boy oh boy do I miss OneNote. For all you PC users out there who have seen OneNote on your computers but have never used it, USE IT. It’s truly the best note taking software out there, and I miss it all the time. I’ve been using Evernote, and it’s okay, but it’s not the same. The day they come out with OneNote for Mac, I will be first in line to buy it. My favourite feature was how when you copied and pasted something, it automatically pasted the link right under it. I also liked writing anywhere on the page (see above: non-linear brain).

Of course, all of this is really just to say that like anything in EM or ResLife, it’s all about preparedness. Since I’m so very aware of my tendency to forget things, I try extra hard to compensate for that.

A great lesson in stubborness, courtesy of my grandfather

Well, I am having a lovely time in Florida. The weather is fantastic and I could not ask for a better vacation. My brother and I travelled to Orlando on Wednesday and went to Universal’s Islands of Adventure, so I could live out my life-long dream of visiting Hogwarts and trying butterbeer!

One of the things I’ve been doing while I’m hear is trying to convince my grandparents to create an Emergency Kit. It’s proven a lot harder than I thought, but as my brother pointed out, it’s good practice for trying to convince the rest of the world that its a good idea to have one. The theme that kept coming up while I was arguing discussing the issue with my grandfather was that the chances were very slim that they would ever need one.

I reminded him that they lived in a hurricane prone area, on a canal, and that disasters can happen anywhere (I used the recent tornadoes in the Midwest as an example). I said that at the very least they should have a “ready-to-go” kit, with extra cash, clothes, and insurance and medical information. I had my grandmother convinced, but we had no luck winning over my grandfather.

“Because,” he said, after my grandmother asked him what the harm was. “It’s a pain in the ass, and it’s not going to happen, and if it does, I’m not worried.” He said he had thirty-six people (including my aunts, uncles and all my cousins) who would look after them if anything happened. Nothing I said to the contrary would sway him.

Eventually, I gave up, for the sake of having a peaceful night. But I reminded him of a story I heard at mass with him once:

A fellow was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help.

Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”

The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.”

So the rowboat went on.

Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.”

To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”

So the motorboat went on.

Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”

To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”

So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.

Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”

To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”

I think its a great reminder that we should always be doing whatever we can to keep ourselves safe. I still haven’t convinced him, but I noticed that he kept the list I made for him, so hopefully he will reconsider!